Somali President: the world cannot bring us peace

Chatham House, under a CC License

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was an unexpected choice for the job of taking Somalia out of its long and self-perpetuating period of ‘transitional’ government. His election in September 2012 came as a surprise because he had not formed part of earlier administrations and was not tainted with corruption or incompetence. Far from being a Somali warlord, Hassan Sheikh had spent most of the last 20 years living in Mogadishu, where he played a leading role in civil society conflict resolution.

‘In a better position than the previous leadership’

Speaking in London recently, President Hassan observed this was ‘the first time in recent Somali history that a leadership that has not practised violence has come to power’. He says the years he spent working with civil society gave him a deep insight into the root causes of Somali conflict. He believes his experience of community-level peace building has equipped him with tools not available to his predecessors. He stresses the need for people ‘to address the bitter memories of the past’, the need for rule of law and human rights protection and the need for dialogue and ‘listening to the other voice’.

President Hassan does not condemn all that happened in the 30 years of Somali statehood from 1960 to1990, but he acknowledges one of the key short-comings: ‘All the rules and the regulations we have in place today only served a highly centralized system,’ he says. ‘We don’t have any rule or any law that facilitates the devolution of power or regulates the relationship between the centre and the peripheries.’ There is much to do to build the new federal system to which the government is committed.

Problems of discipline and issues of identity and loyalty exist, for which there is no quick fix. He says his short-term goal is ‘the security of ordinary citizens in their daily lives’

He says the Somali nation owes its continued existence in the decades without government or any rule of law to the strength of Somali culture. ‘There was nothing but the traditions, cultures and the customary law. These are what the people used in these decades and there is a great deal of relevance in Somali traditions even today.’

Hassan admits that security is still a serious problem and that Somali security institutions are very weak, its forces untrained and ill equipped. Problems of discipline and issues of identity and loyalty exist, for which there is no quick fix. He says his short-term goal is ‘the security of ordinary citizens in their daily lives’. The challenge he defines is how to ‘make the roads, markets and communities “safe enough” so that a Somali woman can go to the market and buy and sell the things she needs’. The concept of the whole country – land, sea and air – operating under the control of Somali security forces, what he terms ‘ultimate security’, is a longer-term target.

The immediate security challenge facing Somalia’s government comes from Al Shabab, the militant Islamist group still controlling significant parts of the south. President Hassan himself narrowly avoided an assassination attempt in September. Last week, suicide bombers again penetrated Villa Somalia but were thwarted in an attempt to kill the Prime Minister. President Hassan’s earlier commitment to dialogue has become more circumspect. Today, he stresses that the phenomenon of Al Shabab is not only a Somali problem but also a regional, continental and international problem, which brings its own constraints. He emphatically wants nothing to do with the ‘core, hard extremist team that leads Al Shabab, who say that Somalia is a country that belongs to all Muslims. We are totally against that.’ However, the government will keep an open door ‘to any Somali citizen wanting to get back to the mainstream of society, who denounces violence and recognizes Somalia as an independent country.’

Somalia’s future

Looking ahead, President Hassan speaks of his plans to extend government beyond the capital. ‘For the first time in post-conflict Somalia, we have a plan where the governance system will be taken outside Mogadishu.’ In the south of the country, around Kismayo, Baidoa and Belet Weyn, discussions with stakeholders are already in progress, starting from the bottom up, to form district and regional level administrations. This process can be expected to become more complex if and when the government’s reach starts to touch on the established political entities in the North, Somaliland (which claims independence) and Puntland. For now, the process is gradual.

The new government has inherited a situation in which neighbouring countries are heavily involved, with military forces inside the country and international forces patrolling Somalia’s seas to contain piracy. ‘This cannot continue,’ he says. ‘What we stand for is to make Somalia handle its security on its own. The world cannot bring peace to Somalia, but it can support it.’

President Hassan is convinced that the amount of recovery Somalia can make depends critically on the international community shifting from the existing patterns of engagement

On his visits to those neighbouring countries, as well as to the US and Europe, President Hassan has asked for help to continue but is also asking for a ‘paradigm shift’ in how that help is delivered. The ‘old practices’, as he calls them, will not deliver, as they did not deliver in the past. The different way requires acceptance of Somali ownership, to let the government itself decide on the type of help required ‘to assist us to manage our own affairs in the short term’.

President Hassan often repeats that ‘change is not easy or fast’, whether in relation to establishing government or persuading the international community to behave differently. But he is convinced that the amount of recovery Somalia can make depends critically on the international community shifting from the existing patterns of engagement. Meanwhile, business is booming in Mogadishu and, after nearly six months in office, President Hassan is still optimistic.

Sally Healy is a Fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. Extracts from her conversation with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud on 2 February 2013 can also be heard on a podcast on the Rift Valley Institute website.

Winds of change in the Horn of Africa


All change in East Africa. Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Ethiopian prime minister Haile Mariam Desalegn. Photos: VOA and World Economic Forum, reproduced under Creative Commons licenses.

On 20 August the Ethiopian authorities announced the sudden death of the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, who had been at the helm of Ethiopian politics for twenty-one years. At the age of 57, Meles still seemed to be at the height of his powers but had announced his intention to step down from the leadership in 2015. He was admired internationally for his intellectual brilliance and had spoken of his hopes for a second career as an academic. Despite Meles’ promise to quit office, few observers of the Ethiopian scene expected that he would cease to be the main force in politics for the foreseeable future. His sudden departure has prompted reflection on a complex legacy. His undoubted success in making Ethiopia a top development partner has been tempered by a record of intolerance and increasing political repression at home.

Just three weeks later in neighbouring Somalia, another 57 year-old man, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, came to sudden prominence. Against all expectations, Hassan Sheikh emerged successfully from a parliamentary election process to become the President of Somalia. He faced twenty-two opponents in the contest. Many of them had gained notoriety as members of the deeply discredited Transitional Federal Government that had done so little to restore peace and order in the country. Hassan Sheikh, on the other hand, is well known in Mogadishu as a man of integrity. His background as a peace activist in civil society and a respected academic has raised expectations that the long political nightmare unfolding in South Central Somalia might at last be coming to an end.

The political fortunes of Ethiopia and Somalia have coincided once before: in 1991 both countries saw off military dictatorships and started a new chapter. Their political trajectory since then could hardly be more different. Ethiopia has shaken off its humiliating 1980s image of famine, starvation and extreme poverty. The country is now feted as an exemplary development partner, DFID’s biggest bilateral aid recipient, boasting real progress on the Millennium Development Goals and ‘double digit’ percentage economic growth figures. Somalia, in contrast, appeared to have lost its way, a failed state, known internationally only for warlordism, violent conflict, famine, corruption and anarchy. Ethiopia’s attempt to forcibly impose a government of its choice on Somalia in 2006 only made matters worse, fuelling the radical extremism of Al Shabab.

The dramatic developments of recent weeks could start to change the outlook for both Ethiopia and Somalia. Ethiopia, with a long history of indigenous statehood, has robust institutions but the country has never yet experienced a change of leadership that did not involve some turmoil and violence. For now the ruling party is playing the lead role. On 15 September, Haile Mariam Desalegn, Meles’ former deputy, was elected party chairperson. This is a prelude to his inauguration as prime minister by parliament, an assembly with only one member who does not belong to the ruling party.

Somalia’s state institutions have been largely eroded, but its democratic and participatory political traditions are stronger than those of its powerful neighbour. The election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and his inauguration as president on 16 September marks a much needed break with the past. He is neither part of the corrupt political establishment nor under the sway of foreign powers. He stayed in Mogadishu through all the hard times, established a successful university there and worked consistently for reconciliation among Somali factions. His challenge is to bring this approach to the national stage.

The outside world will miss Meles, a pro-Western regional ally in a dangerous neighbourhood. But there is room to hope that the momentous changes in the Horn this summer will include a positive transformation for Somalia.

Sally Healy is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute.

Podcast: Sally Healy on the East Africa famine

Tens of thousands of children have died, and around a million Somalis have fled their homeland, since famine struck East Africa last July. The world's international media began to report the crisis when the death toll climbed, and by September, governments had pledged $1.6 billion in aid.

However, less attention was paid to the famine's causes, among them the increasing politicization of aid and the many difficulties arising from the west's relations with Al Shabab, the group controlling large swathes of southern Somalia.

In our October issue we featured an 'expert's view' on this subject from Sally Healy, an Associate Fellow of the African Programme at Chatham House in the UK, and leader of their Horn of Africa programme.  Here, she discussed her article and the questions it raises with Nyan Storey in his latest Radio NI interview.

Podcast: Sally Healy on the East African famine

Issue 446 coverTens of thousands of children have died, and around a million Somalis have fled their homeland, as a result of the famine that struck East Africa this year. NGOs working in the region predicted the crisis long before it drew the world's attention (among those sounding the alarm was Oxfam's Channel 16 project, a partner of New Internationalist). But the international media did turn to the famine as its toll grew, and by September $1.6 billion of aid had been pledged.

However, less attention was paid to the famine's causes, among them the increasing politicization of aid and the many difficulties arising from the west's relations with Al Shabab, the group controlling large swathes of southern Somalia. In our October issue we feature an 'expert's view' on this subject from Sally Healy, an Associate Fellow of the African Programme at Chatham House in the UK, and leader of their Horn of Africa programme.  Here, she discussed her article and the question it raises with Nyan Storey in his latest Radio NI interview.

Who is to blame for the Somali famine?

Too little, too late? Children walk past an African Union Mission soldier from Uganda at a food distribution centre in Mogadishu.

Ho New / Reuters

In a world of plenty, famine is a very serious thing. It shouldn’t happen in the 21st century, but it is happening in Somalia. In simple terms, famine is declared when there is evidence of acute malnutrition affecting more than 30 per cent of children. In some parts of Somalia, levels have reached 50 per cent.

Drought conditions tipped vulnerable people into the shocking predicament the world has witnessed over the past few months, forcing them to leave the meagre comfort of their homes to search for help and to face the awful choice of leaving weaker children behind to save the stronger ones. But the reasons that no assistance was to hand were political rather than climatic.

The loudest voices blame Al Shabab, the radical anti-Western group that controls much of southern Somalia. Its suspicion of the West and its attacks on aid workers made access for UN and other Western humanitarian agencies well nigh impossible.

Others blame the US government for having passed legislation to stop any of its assistance reaching areas held by Al Shabab. This intimidated aid agencies, which feared that any humanitarian assistance could be seen as ‘support for terrorists’.

Still others say the famine represents a failure of the UN system brought about by the politicization of aid. The World Food Programme stopped its support to the most vulnerable people in southern Somalia just when they needed it most.

As starving people turned up in their thousands, filling makeshift camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and the Somali capital, Mogadishu, those responsible started to squirm and to cover up their part in the crisis. Al Shabab now declared that it would let aid in. Its leaders claimed they had no objection to the delivery of humanitarian assistance provided it came without a political agenda. The US government provided a ‘clarification’ to say that humanitarian agencies had no need to fear prosecution if they delivered assistance to needy people under Al Shabab’s control. The World Food Programme said that all it lacked were the funds to allow it to operate.

The famine in Somalia represents a collective failure of the international community to uphold one simple principle. This is that humanitarian assistance – the type of assistance that the poorest people need to avert starvation in a drought – should have no political strings attached. In an environment as fragmented and dangerous and highly politicized as Somalia, the only agencies that were able to carry on their work were those such as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent that insisted on the principle of impartiality and stuck to a mandate of giving help to the needy. The politicization of humanitarian aid, by Al Shabab and by Western governments, is the cause of this famine. The poorest and youngest people in Somalia are paying the price.

Sally Healy is an Associate Fellow of the African Programme at Chatham House in the UK and leads their Horn of Africa programme.

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